Monday, December 26, 2011

Grachev, Cracknell help Blues end skid against Stars

Role players thrive in 5-3 victory; power play efficient going 2-for-2

ST. LOUIS -- Last season, missing key pieces would have been a problem for the Blues. It would have been tough to overcome the losses of T.J. Oshie and Jamie Langenbrunner on the same night.

But these are the are the new Blues, who added organizational depth and that depth proved once again to be a worthy commodity Monday night.

They came in the form of Evgeny Grachev, who was acquired for a third-round pick at last summer's draft and Adam Cracknell, who was recalled from Peoria earlier in the day to replace Oshie, who is out with a wrist ailment.

(Getty Images)
The Blues' Adam Cracknell (79), recalled earlier in the day Monday,
contributed immediately with a goal in the Blues' 5-3 win over Dallas.

Both players scored goals, with Grachev's first NHL goal being the game-winner in a 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars at Scottrade Center, the Blues' sixth straight win at home, giving them a league-leading 14 wins at home.

It was disclosed earlier on Monday that Oshie would be out Monday and tonight in Detroit with an injury to his left wrist, apparently suffered during last week's two-game trip. He was tied with Alex Steen for the team lead in points with 23. And Langenbrunner missed the game with the flu. Along with Andy McDonald (concussion), Vladimir Sobotka (ankle), B.J. Crombeen (shoulder) and Kent Huskins (ankle) all ailing, that meant that guys like Grachev, Cracknell and Ryan Reaves as well as Chris Porter and Ian Cole step in and fill the gaps efficiently until some of these key missing pieces return.

But as Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said, there's no debating playing these kinds of players.

"Not to the point where you're not afraid to play them," Hitchcock said. "... I think here, the players that come up are trustworthy, whether it's Cracknell or Porter or Grachev or whoever ... Cole. These are trustworthy players. They know how to play the game without the puck, so they can go right in the lineup and fit in.

"Long-term, they're not going to fill the net for you, but over a short term, they're accomplished players. All you need to do is watch them play two or three shifts and you really trust them."

The Blues trusted Grachev, moving him into a top-six role with Patrik Berglund and David Perron, who had two assists giving him 10 points in 10 games since returning from a 13-month absence due to a concussion. Hitchcock trusted Cracknell, the Rivermen's captain, by throwing him into the game immediately and playing important minutes on the fourth line with Scott Nichol and Reaves, who was being the agitator effectively.

"We had some guys that needed to step up, and I think we did a good job of that," said Perron. "Grach was one of them that stepped up and got a big goal for us.

"We've just got to keep going. It's only one game for us. It's another win and we've got to keep it going."

The Blues trusted their role players in another game that came down to the end even after the Blues (21-10-4) built up a lead that seemed insurmountable.

It didn't end in a one-goal win for the Blues, but after a third-period hiccup that nearly saw a three-goal lead evaporate, the Blues had to find another gear to hold off the surging Stars.

"We keep talking about one-goal games. We have a way of making it a one-goal game," said Hitchcock, whose team is 16-0-0 this season when scoring three goals or more. "We played really hard tonight. We did a lot of really good things amd probably got a litle too revved up towards the end there ... When it's 4-1, we're trying to make it 5-1 or when it's 4-2, we're trying to make it 5-2."

The NHL's 30th-ranked power play also helped keep the Blues tough to beat on home ice.

They got a pair of power-play goals from Chris Stewart and Jason Arnott. Stewart scored twice, while Jaroslav Halak stopped 20 shots to improve to 6-1-4 in his past 11 starts.

Halak also beat the Stars for the first time in his career. He was 0-4 with a 3.05 goals-against average and .875 save percentage in four previous starts.

The Blues improved to 15-3-4 under Hitchcock and remained in fourth place in the Western Conference while also snapping a five-game winless skid (0-4-1) against the Stars (20-14-1). The Blues' previous win against Dallas was a 2-1 win here on April 3, 2010.

"We were playing well," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who got into a scuffle with the Stars' Steve Ott late in the game. "We were moving the puck, we were keeping things simple, especially coming off a two-day break. We wanted to get the puck in deep and make their d-men make mistakes."

The Stars got goals from Mike Ribeiro, Eric Nystrom and Michael Ryder.

Richard Bachman stopped 22 shots after starting in goal. Bachman was replaced to start the third period by veteran Andrew Raycroft, who fell to 2-8 on the season after stopping 11 shots.

"There's no question a couple of those goals, he wishes he had back," Stars rookie coach Glen Gulutzan said of Bachman. "We don't want to let anyone off the hook. Everybody's got a job to do."

Stewart, who may have caught Bachman by surprise with his sharp-angle shot speeding in from the bottom of the right circle. Stewart got a pass from David Backes and snapped a shot as he caught Bachman off the near post at 8:24 of the first for a 1-0 Blues lead.

It was the Blues' first power-play goal in four games, breaking an 0-for-8 stretch.

"Shooting the puck is something we talked aboue before the game," Perron said. "Some games we maybe try to get too fancy trying to get the seams and stuff like that. Tonight, we just shot at the net and we got some chances. I wouldn't count them as greatour night tonight."

St. Louis' forecheck in the Stars' zone during the first period was relentless against a team that didn't get into St. Louis until Monday afternoon because of a League-mandated travel moratorium on Christmas Day.

Ribeiro got the Stars even 1-1 4:22 into the second period, beating Halak from the half wall by using Brenden Morrow as a screen, but Cracknell quickly restored the Blues' lead to 2-1 by snapping a shot that Bachman would also like to have had back just 1:47 after Ribeiro's goal.

"(Bachman) might have been screened a little bit," said Cracknell, who got the call on Christmas Eve that he was coming up to the NHL. "I was moving my feet and trying to catch him off-guard. It worked. I'm happy with it.

"To come out here, step in and play some good minutes tonight ... our line played well. We just stuck to the game plan and we had a couple good chances."

Arnott gave the Blues a 3-1 lead when he beat the clock and threw a one-timer into an open side of the goal on a scramble play with 2.1 seconds left in the second period. It was the veteran center's fourth goal in five games after scoring just four goals in 29 games.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (middle) celebrates with teammates David
Perron (left) and Carlo Colaiacovo after scoring in the third period of a
5-3 win over Dallas Monday night.

Grachev beat Raycroft after following up Perron's shot 6:45 into the third period for a 4-1 lead. Raycroft made a pad stop on Perron's shot and Grachev fired home the rebound into an empty side.

"I was just driving to the net," said Grachev, acquired by the Blues from the New York Rangers for a third-round pick at last summer's draft. "Momentum brought me there and I got the bounce. ... It's a great feeling."

Nystrom's goal came at 7:57 on a shot from between the circles that appeared to also catch Halak by surprise, dipping into the lower part of the net. Ryder's team-leading 14th of the season came after a center-ice turnover that led to a 2-on-1. Ryder wristed a shot into the near corner with 5:13 to play to cut the Blues' lead to 4-3 and make things interesting.

"We were coming back," said Nystrom, who scored his 12th goal this season in 30 games after 23 goals in 286 career games coming into the season. "We just fell short.

"The Blues played hard. They had that extra edge to them."

Stewart, who has three goals in three games after scoring four in 29, added his second of the game with an empty-netter with 50.6 seconds remaining. It was Stewart's first two-goal effort in the last 37 games. The last came on March 29, 2011.

"We loved our effort tonight, loved our compete," Hitchcock said. "It's little things that we can pick up as we move forward, it'll really help us down the line."

The Blues left town after the game for a key Central Division game at Detroit Wednesday.

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